February 3, 2013
I have so much respect now for Eric Dierks, Tiffany Cattledge, and Kerry Blackmer. Training horses for an audience on a timeline is a hell of a challenge. We made them ride those horses in front of the MD Expo audience on Day 1 and at the PA Expo after five weeks. We rode ours at the MD Expo in the sixth week and will take them to the PA Expo in the 11th week, and we are still feeling the pressure of the timeline.
The Maryland Expo was a huge success from a public visibility standpoint. Our crowds were larger than for any other clinician or demonstration there. People love Thoroughbreds and they love watching them being trained. We got great coverage in the Chronicle of the Horse, Thoroughbred Daily News, Eventing Nation, and a great article came out that weekend in Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred. For PA Expo we'll be going for mainstream media.
Alluring Punch was not overwhelmed by the Expo environment, but was definitely distracted when under saddle in the arena. Valerie Shepard did a great job, despite his insistence on looking to the outside and drifting in rather than staying within his riders' aids as he had begun to learn at home. That inward drift caught up with them when he knocked over a jump standard and ran sideways just at the moment Valerie's balance was off! No big deal. Rider hopped back on and proceeded to jump very nicely.
This horse made quite an impression at the expo, especially with his magnificent free jump performance. Four star eventer Colleen Rutledge expressed interest in him as a possible successor to her superstar ex-racehorse Shiraz. A rather famous steeplechase owner and ex-jockey is pursuing him as a timber prospect. But an ambitious young event rider from New Jersey actually took it to the next level. She made an offer that owner Barbara Ryan couldn't refuse and did a prepurchase exam.
The good news from the vetting is that he's sound and has very good radiographs...except for one thing. Alluring Punch has a chip sitting at the front of his left ankle just waiting to be plucked out. Nobody knows when it happened or how, but the joint itself is in good shape. He will continue in the 100 Day Challenge and we will keep an eye on that ankle. Barbara still plans to sell him, either as-is or contingent on successful surgery. She is leaning toward having the chip removed at the end of the 100 Day Challenge, but let us know if you want to be first in line to get him. Minus the chip you get a clean set of x-rays and a magnificent horse!
The really good news, however, is that wiggly young Punchy has turned a corner in his training. Every single day he seems to be straighter and more focused, and this week he shared with us that magical shift of balance that brings out the quality in a horse's canter. I found myself cantering courses of jumps, and while I still had to work pretty hard to help with the balance, there were moments where I could soften and let him carry himself to the jumps with no change of rhythm. With three weeks left to the PA Expo I suspect we will be able to present there a transformed horse. Progress always comes in waves, so it's hard to predict how far we will get, but I have a really good feeling about where Alluring Punch is going right now.
Most of you know by now that Declan backed out of the step-up trailer too quickly onto the asphalt at the MD Expo, slipped and fell. I was told he did the same thing in the same place when he arrived for the yearling show in 2003, which he won of course.
There was a little hair scraped off the cap of his right hock but he seemed ok until we turned him loose to free jump in the Friday session. He was grade 2 (out of 5) lame on the right hind, so he had to return to his stall. That evening he had two grams of bute and in the morning he jogged sound and still had no swelling. I rode him in the Saturday and Sunday sessions with no more bute and he performed well.
During the following week we saw some intermittent soreness in the right hind again. Our vet palpated the hock and said he had a bit of a bone bruise at the back of the hock, but he flexes ok on it. I then had our chiropractor Dr. Ruth Stokes look him over and she noted soreness in the sacroiliac area on the right side. She is scheduled to return Tuesday to adjust him. In the meantime we had Samantha Bilodeau do massage on him. The slight unevenness we had seen (this time grade 1) disappeared as a result (or maybe coincidentally) but he will still see Dr. Stokes on Tuesday after Samantha gets the muscles loosened up for her.
Rather than have him rest completely during this time, I have played with Declan every day on the longe line and under saddle. One of the more interesting games was to put him in side reins (the kind with the rubber doughnuts) to let him accept the boundaries of the reins. I did this on one of the days where I could detect a slight unevenness in his trot on the longe, but with the side reins he became even. He also looked sound when I was riding him. That doesn't mean he's sound, but it's interesting to note.
I liked the way Declan dealt with the side reins. He is such an intelligent horse. He figured out where the boundaries were immediately and respected them. We only walked and trotted.
I have also done a lot of under saddle work with him in the walk. The other three horses allowed us to push them laterally from our legs, but with Declan he would either push right back or kick out if I pressed too hard. It's that stallion-like willingness to fight rather than submit that I so enjoy.
This week he started to accept that kind of leg pressure. We did leg yields along the rail at both an inside and outside angle at the walk and we did some turn on the forehand. I feel like this is the key to getting much better work out of him when we are sure that he's 100 percent physically.
Lots of horses get nagging and barely noticeable issues in their sacroiliac areas, often making them less than enthusiastic about their work. We find that, unlike front leg lamenesses, the best way to improve them is with movement, stretching, and strength. We will continue with massage and chorpractic on Declan while listening carefully to his responses under saddle. If only horses could explain to us how they feel we would know just what to do.
One final note, in the interest of full disclosure and education. Declan was a maniac on the day we arrived at the expo. I hand walked him around the barns and he was a powder keg held together only by the shank over his nose. The afternoon session was going to be dangerous. The horses enter under a loud garage door, stand waiting on rubber mats that cover only a part of the slippery cement floor, and that's before they even enter the arena.
I gave him 1 and ½ cc's of acepromazine in the muscle (he hates needles and getting a vein on him is a task). The effect was just about right. All he had to do was look good, trot around, and hop over a little jump. There are no drug rules at a horse expo. It is possible that the relaxation he felt might have been why he showed the soreness that hadn't been evident when he was coiled like a spring. I understand that some readers will be shocked that I would publicly state that we tranquilized a horse for a public demonstration. I am not a fan of using drugs as training tools, but I also believe that in the interest of safety we need to be open to any and all methods and weigh their costs and benefits. Good training requires thinking outside the box sometimes, and this was one of those moments.
The interesting thing was that the next morning I led him into the main arena to jog him for soundness and he was very alert but also very manageable. He had settled in and was no longer a danger to himself or anyone else. He had no more drugs that weekend and not only performed respectably but even stood in the exhibition stall next to our booth while thousands of obnoxious people stuck their fingers in and clucked at him. I HATE IT when people cluck at horses in their stalls! I wasn't very nice to the people who tried it.
Despite my yearning to somehow nurse Gunport through the horse expo with her kicked hock so that all those people could fall in love with her, we kept her home. It was the right thing to do. By Monday the hock was down to mostly just a lingering cap that will take quite a while to disappear. Dr. Liz Reese palpated it, watched her jog and flex sound, and agreed that she could get back to work. I have a feeling that she wouldn't have much liked the horse expo anyway.
All of you who have followed this process on Facebook know that Gunport was exclusively ridden by our assistant trainer, Michelle Warro, and that Michelle and Gunport had bonded. Not long after Gunport was injured, Michelle couldn't resist joining her on layup by dropping a couch on her foot and breaking three bones. We expect Michelle to be back in the saddle the week of the PA Expo.
Our temporary star rider Valerie Shepard took over the ride. Valerie is a much better rider than she would admit and like many of us tends toward softness over firmness. Put another way she tends to underestimate what her horses can give her. She has the skills to get more when she puts them to use.
Gunport has a way of making you think she is explosive and very green. Valerie is fearless, but at first didn't offer Gunport the support she needed. She went ok, but very much on her forehand. On the third or fourth day I asked Valerie to sit Gunport's trot. I'm sure she thought I was nuts, but the effect was that Gunport raised her poll (she had been too deep) and shifted her balance evenly onto all four legs rather than leaning on the front end. That made her canter transitions, her circles, her straight lines, and work in all three gaits much easier. Now she is riding her with more leg and an expectation of balance.
I remember Bruce Davidson telling me to put six strides into a four stride distance between two tiny jumps on one of his four year olds that was green as grass. I thought he was nuts. I had always let green horses just kind of lope around and find the jumps in whatever canter they liked. When I sat up and rode the four year old like an older horse he responded with six balanced strides. A light went off for me. Even young horses can carry themselves efficiently if they are taught to respond to the aids that we use to help them. Sometimes we just need to raise our expectations.
On Friday I decided that I'm really not that heavy and Gunport really isn't that small. She's actually 16.1 hands but petite. I am 6'2" and my weight is none of your business. I rode her in the indoor and immediately understood why Michelle is so smitten with her.
We started out slow because the ice was sliding off the roof of the indoor a bit. When she spooked she never went far. Instead she coiled herself like a spring, practically sat down, and then walked on again. Her lightness makes her feel so rideable, and her canter has this incredibly smooth feel to it that just makes you smile and want to go all day.She made me feel as though she was completely tuned in to my body and that I could ride with the same subtlety that I would on a dressage schoolmaster. Valerie and I will fight over her while Michelle recuperates and then Michelle and I will fight over her.
She definitely lost some ground, but we think that by the PA Expo she will be at least as good as the boys. I am not sure what she will be best suited for but who cares. All you can think about when you are around her is how gorgeous she is.
Suave Jazz was in his element at the horse expo. He is such a charmer and crowd pleaser. He trotted like never before in the Friday session and free jumped without ever taking his eye off the people. He went just like he goes at home for Katie Klenk in the main arena on Saturday, and on Sunday he looked absolutely magnificent in racing tack with retired jockey Jennifer Stisted.
I had planned to hunt him on the following Wednesday but they cancelled due to the really hard freeze. I took him out for a stream crossing school (the one chink in his armor) the day before the hunt and he again showed a deeply felt fear of the mud and water before demonstrating his deeply felt trust in the people around him. Our lead buddy (a nappy little Quarter horse who likes to spin and go home) wasn't a whole lot better than Jazz, but fortunately we met Laury Parramore on her brave Thoroughbred who was hacking over for a lesson that I would have been late for, and she helped get us through. I was smarter in my choice of streams this time and didn't have to contend with the steep banks. I did have to get off and lead him, but again I was smart and had brought my long horse whisperer rope so that I could stay out of his way when he leaped. He was very deliberate in the way he sniffed and tested the footing. Once he had done it he went again without fear. It was as if he was calculating all the risks and weighing them against his desire to follow his person. I am sure he went home and thought about it all so that next time won't be an issue.
I have worried that even though Suave Jazz's canter has improved in its balance it still feels tense and that he may not be ready to canter his jumps at the PA expo. There are no rules about what we have to do with the horses there, but if all of our jumping is done from a trot I will feel a little like we failed.
Most horses are learn fast when their world is slow and relaxed, but when they get a little tense their ability to think disappears. I felt like this horse's canter was too tense to really learn to jump corrrectly.You'll notice in the MD Expo video that he broke to trot over and over when coming onto the long side of the ring.
Well this week he started to carry himself in the canter. I started being more clear with my legs that collapsing into trot was not acceptable and he stopped trying. Then he figured that if he was going to have to maintain his canter in this little space he might as well do it without all that nagging from his rider. Suddenly he felt comfortable. When I felt that new canter I took a chance and took it to some jumps. Low and behold he jumped from a canter without launching like a steeplechaser.
We won't spend a lot of time cantering jumps. We will still do slow, rhythmic but forward flat work with plenty of leg yields in the walk and trot, both sitting and rising. And we will school the canter figures with the spurs (Spursuaders actually) very close to his skin and ready to connect to prevent that sprawling collapse into trot. When we jump we will avoid fatigue. It is hard work for him to canter correctly over fences, and if he is giving us 100% we will always stop before his muscles get weary.
Like the others, Suave Jazz will be impressive in Pennsylvania.
Our four very different horses are wowing us in four very different ways. What they all share is heart. They are game Thoroughbreds who love a challenge and we are incredibly lucky people to be sharing this world with them.
We continue to be thrilled by the response this Challenge is getting. RRTP has grown to
• 6,300 Facebook Fans
• 30,000 Facebook Weekly Reach at times
• 157,000 You Tube views
• 350,000 web site hits.
The message is getting out and hopefully some learning is taking place.
Stay tuned for a new set of videos, announcement of the start of the popular vote, judges for PA Expo, and the venue for our final tribute event on March 9 or 10.